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How toxic air pollution threatens some of the poorest residents of Seattle… and maybe your town, too

How toxic air pollution threatens some of the poorest residents of Seattle… and maybe your town, too

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Seattle's only river is – officially – a toxic waste dump. The Duwamish River is one of the few Superfund sites anywhere in the country extending for miles through the heart of a city. Facing off across the Duwamish are the neighborhoods of South Park and Georgetown – some of Seattle's poorest and most diverse communities.

I extensively documented contamination of the river several years ago for a multi-part series critiquing the Superfund cleanup efforts. We revisited the topic late last year when the Superfund process offered residents a chance to tell the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency what they thought of the agency's plans.

But overall, this overlooked corner of Seattle, so physically close to Seattle's gleaming Space Needle and sparkling downtown skyscrapers, continues to receive relatively little attention from the news media. I knew there was a multi-faceted story to be told about the residents' health that I had only hinted at.

InvestigateWest took on that challenge when earlier this year, my colleague Carol Smith focused on community health issues in those communities for her California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship project.

Carol's stories documented how the residents of these communities not only are living with soil and water pollution, but also the other ways the health chips are stacked against them, including:  lack of parks or other facilities to encourage exercise; a complete absence of regular supermarkets offering access to fresh vegetables and protein; and incessant air pollution.

She explored how , to make ends meet, people in the area regularly catch and eat fish from the river, despite health officials' advice to avoid this cheap source of protein. And Carol discussed how the Duwamish is something of a test case for the Obama administration's proclaimed focus on environmental justice. 

Her examination also uncovered data showing children and adults in the area were being hospitalized for asthma at the highest rates in the county.

That was the seed for us to drill down deep on how air pollution is a major health issue in these communities. Working with producer Jenny Cunningham, photographer Greg Davis and others from KCTS9 , the public-television station in Seattle, we were able to show:

  • Two major recent studies that documented how residents of Georgetown and South Park face air-toxics levels many times what state officials have set as regulatory yellow flags, indicating the most sensitive individuals may be affected.
  • Despite a major effort by the Port of Seattle to reduce air pollution, the port has done relatively little to reduce the amount of pollution coming from privately operated trucks that residents complain are a major contributor to their health woes because the trucks are so intimately inserted into their neighborhoods. Even though the port's head promised to make the Seattle port the cleanest and greenest in the nation, he helped frustrate national efforts to crack down on the trucks' pollution at ports nationwide. This legislation deserves attention in port cities nationwide. If you'd like help doing stories on this, don't hesitate to contact me at rmcclure (at)

Our text stories advanced a Friday night show with a piece produced by Cunningham and Davis, followed by a discussion with Port of Seattle Commissioner Tom Albro and attorney/activist Paul Marvy of the non-profit group Change to Win.

To pursue the air-pollution story in your region, a good starting place is the National Air Toxics Assessment, a periodic inventory of unregulated "hazardous air pollutants," or HAPS. It's a screening tool that will give you an idea where your region fits into the national picture.

Go beyond that, though, by checking with your local air pollution regulatory agency. In some states that will be a state agency. In others, such as Seattle, there is a local air-pollution agency. Not all of them receive a lot of media coverage, and at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency we discovered two previously unpublicized studies that were crucial to understanding the air pollution threat.

Carol's stories helped propel us into a deeper investigation of air pollution in south Seattle, and that investigation has in turn revealed stories that deserve further attention, including how wood smoke from fireplaces takes a major health toll, and the dangers of locating schools close to pollution-spewing highways.

We'll be following up. Stay tuned.


Robert McClure is a co-founder of InvestigateWest, a non-profit Seattle-based newsroom covering the Pacific Northwest. More at


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I now live in George town due to income. I was wondering how long one could expect to stay healthy living here with no water to wash tracking the soul into my small camp trailer long with my dog. I am also giving my dogaway because of this. Thanksgiving's

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